I recently visited an exhibition at the Tate Modern called Conflict, Time, Photography. Luckily for me, my best friend from university is a member of the TATE and this particular exhibition is free for members and one guest so I got to go for free, but otherwise it costs £14.50 for adults and £12.50 for the concession price. This might seem a bit steep but I really enjoyed this exhibition and personally think it would be worth paying. So, a bit about it…
In short, this exhibition looks at photography of sites of conflict from the last 150 years. What makes it unique is the way it is ordered. Rather than working chronologically through the conflicts, the photos are ordered according to how long after the event they were taken. The first room therefore is called ‘Moments Later’ and shows the famous mushroom cloud, buildings as they are collapsing and one of the images used to promote the exhibition, the image of a shell-shocked US Marine in Vietnam taken by Don McCullin. You then progress onto ‘Days Later’, ‘Weeks Later’, ‘Months Later’ and then ‘Years Later’ which spans from one year to one hundred years after a conflict. I thought this was an interesting way of ordering it and allowed you to see that while some cities (Berlin, for example) have been able to rebuild and recover from conflict, others have remained badly affected and some, deserted entirely.
One of my favourite aspects of the exhibition was that it did not concentrate completely on any one conflict. There were images from World War I and II, two conflicts I feel that I know quite a lot about, but there were others from the Armenian conflict of 1915-1918, Namibia from 1966-1990, Angola from 1975-2002, Nicaragua from 1978-1979 to name but a few, that I knew less about and had never seen many images of. I realise this says more about my own ignorance than anything else, but even so, I appreciated that there were a wide range of conflicts represented and lots of information to read giving you context on the way around. I think many of the images in this exhibition needed a bit of explanation, particularly those that were in the later rooms and taken nearly 100 years after a conflict, but that the curators had done this really well. If you are the sort of person who walks through an exhibition and doesn’t read the context, there will definitely be a few images here you might not fully appreciate. One in particular that springs to mind is ‘Shot at Dawn’ by Chloe Dewe Mathews four photos which appear to show landscapes with no real landmarks, but are in reality photos of the exact spots where British, French and Belgian soldiers were executed for cowardice during World War I. The images, for me, were some of the most haunting in the entire exhibition.
The exhibition begins with some quotes from Kurt Vonnegut Jr who was present during the firebombing of Dresden in February 1945. He was locked in the underground meat locker of a slaughterhouse as a prisoner of war and twenty-four years later finally published his novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. The quote as you enter is one from after the book was published:
“People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore. I’ve finished my war book now. The next one I write is going to be fun. This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt.”
This exhibition then forces you to do exactly that, to look back. I would recommend going to look back for yourselves and look at just some of the damage caused by some of the conflicts of the last 150 years and reflect on the many different ways in which conflict impacts on people’s lives.